The Pollinator Gardener: Coping with Deer in Winter

February 18, 2022

The Pollinator Gardener is a new feature in Field Notes. 

Two white tailed deer in a snowy field

White tailed deer checking out your woody shrubs!

By Angela Sisson

Trees and shrubs are valuable plants in our ecological landscape and especially important to pollinators. Hardwood trees and shrubs are the top pollinator host plants, referred to by author Doug Tallamy as keystone species.

Trees and shrubs are the most vulnerable to deer predation in the late winter and early spring. During the fall a deer’s diet switches from soft green plants to harder woody plants, favoring the nutritious, tasty bud tips. The loss of these growing tips can kill or seriously compromise woody plants and many don’t recover the same way perennials do. Aggravating this dietary preference is the fact that by late winter deer have depleted their fat reserves. By March, especially after a tough winter, deer are most at risk of starvation.

If you have trees and shrubs which are accessible to deer, now is the most important time to protect them. It’s a matter of protecting your investment—just as new plantings need be watered, many established plants need protection. Of the various methods I’ve tried over the years (fencing, deer netting, wireless electric fence, etc.) spray repellents have worked the best. Surrounding a tree with protective fencing tends to be unattractive and a maintenance obstruction not to mention that hungry deer can often crush the fence. Deer netting is also unattractive and it can catch birds and snakes—and deer can crush the netting. Wireless electric fences may work for some people in certain situations but this requires rods with bait and batteries at multiple locations.

Spray repellents work best on smaller landscapes where plants are within a few hundred feet of each other. For example, I spray up to 50 trees and shrubs every 3-4 weeks in late winter, all of which takes me about 15-20 minutes. Spraying in winter gives me the opportunity to visit my plants, especially those plants which are out of sight and out of mind. Winter is a time to see the bones of your landscape, a time when you might get ideas about what to plant or remove. Think of spraying repellents as a form of winter gardening. Make sure to spray on warmer days, with temperatures above freezing, or the liquid will crystallize and not adhere to plants.

As spring proceeds, the non-woody (herbaceous) cool season, ground-hugging plants begin to green up and the deer’s diet transitions from the hard woody plants to these softer green plants. At this point the pressure will be off the trees and shrubs.

Using repellents gives me the confidence of knowing that I can plant what I want. Though the deer are the first to remind me if I forget to spray.

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